‘Beginning of Finding Yourself’ During Cancer Survivorship

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Musician Andrew McMahon has made it his mission to spread the message of community and seeking mental health care like therapy for adolescents and young adults with cancer.

Andrew McMahon singing at a concert | Photo credit: Dear Jack Foundation

After surviving cancer, singer-songwriter, Andrew McMahon said he "felt lost," before seeking out support.

Photo credit: Dear Jack Foundation

Seeking support from others while being kind to oneself may be beneficial for adolescents and young adult cancer survivors navigating how to “get back to living,” an acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) survivor said.

Andrew McMahon is a singer-songwriter who has formed several bands including Something Corporate, Jack’s Mannequin and Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. But before finishing a tour with his then-band Jack’s Mannequin in 2005, he received a diagnosis of ALL, for which he underwent chemotherapy, radiation and a stem cell transplant.

Since then, he has learned many lessons about the importance of community, something which he knew more about at the beginning of his cancer survivorship journey.

“The process of fighting my cancer was such a small portion of what I consider my cancer experience, and I think that was something that I was just wholly unprepared for,” he said in an interview with CURE®. “You think, ‘Wow, if I can just beat this, and then I can get back to living.’ I think what I found and what my wife found is just that, we were really, really lost on the other side of treatment.”

He’s using the lessons he learned throughout the years to provide resources for adolescents and young adult patients with cancer through the Dear Jack Foundation.

“I didn't have the community around me, or even the knowledge or anybody who just said, ‘This is normal that you feel this way,’” he said. “And that's why I do what I do now, is to be the person that raises their hand and says, ‘You might feel guilty because you lived or you might feel lost on the other side of this, and that's OK.’ And I think knowing that you’re lost is actually the beginning of finding yourself.”

McMahon spoke with CURE® about what got him back to living, what we had wish he had done differently and the advice he would give to other adolescents and young adults with cancer.

How did you navigate survivorship despite not having the community and resources you know about now?

Poorly, very poorly. One of the saving graces of when I was diagnosed was that my passion for what I was doing at the time was so strong. I was making music. I had been successful. I was in the process of relaunching the second iteration of my career. And I was so proud of the record that I had made that I think, in a lot of ways, it fast-tracked my treatments. I was so motivated, I had a doctor who was very ambitious, who, at the time, chose to move forward with an early stem cell transplant rather than waiting and doing the three years of chemo because, one, he knew that I wanted to get back to living. He thought it was my best shot, even though if it didn't work, it was probably a potential death sentence. But we chose this very aggressive path because I was so motivated to get back to work. The work thing was so motivating that I just went right back to it.

But I missed so many steps of reintegration, … of coping with what I had lost or what I eventually perceived to have lost as a lot of my youth, my innocence, I think my footing as somebody who thought that life was stable and being young made you invincible. And then I just dove right into being back on tour. And my business is one where you're rewarded for staying out late and the harder you party and wake up and are still able to do your gig the next day, you get a pat on the back for that in my business. So I leaned into those years and for, God, four or five years, it was just like, over 200 shows a year, and it was a nonstop party. And it was just me trying really hard not to cope with what I had gone through.

How did you eventually try to cope with what happened?

I started getting tired of the lifestyle that I was living, and it was starting to reveal itself that a way of living that had really been born out of fun and was really meant to be a celebration, it started getting darker. I have addiction issues in my family. And I never really tipped fully over into that realm. But that side of me was getting triggered. I was starting to realize that I was using any means of distraction possible to sort of avoid the bigger question, which was, what was this emptiness I was feeling? Or why was I waking up depressed, or having a hard time waking up at all? So it was a gradual thing.

Over the course of a couple of years, it was my wife and I making some decisions to slow things down as far as the road was concerned, taking a little more time to make records, trying to clean up relationships that had become toxic in the aftermath, largely because of the way I handled myself. And then eventually moving out of LA, coming back home to South Orange County where my wife and I both had family and friends that we grew up with, people that knew us well, that I think we had sort of intentionally run away from because I think we weren't really sure who we were anymore.

Eventually, it was therapy. My wife had grown so exhausted of living on the roller coaster that I had put us on, and she got exhausted of having to constantly take care of me, even though I was physically better. Then she said, you got to just go get some help. Everything we're trying is working a little, but it's not working all the way. And that was really the turning point for me.

What advice would you give your 22-year-old self, knowing what you know now?

I would force myself to seek out community, I would force myself to seek out other patients and survivors, I was so resistant to that, I had people constantly saying, Well, I know somebody, you should get a cup of coffee. And I think I was really wary of bringing more cancer into my life, I wanted there to be less of that. I wanted not to be reminded of it. I was in full denial.

And on top of that, I was also being reminded, because I was doing press, and I was having this moment in my career where the only thing people wanted to talk to me when they talked about my music was my cancer. And so there were these dual layers of all of that. But I would say, I would have started therapy immediately. And I probably, in hindsight, I don't know if I could have worked less, but I could have probably worked smarter. And again, I think there was just a component of because I was refusing to face it, all of these other decisions fell from that place. And so I guess the No. 1 thing would be some version of immunity and some version of — whether it's talk therapy or a support group or something to that effect, I think would have made a massive difference in my trajectory, in that period of time in my life, for sure.

This transcription has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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